By Sara Gordon
A lithe, dappled bay daughter of Pioneerof the Nile, whose striking features and poetic stride make her easy to pick out on the main track at Churchill Downs, GI Kentucky Oaks contender Southlawn has certainly caught the attention of many leading up to her Run for the Lilies this Friday.
But what many may not know is that trainer Norm Casse's stable pony, who escorts the filly to and from the track each morning, is also a star in his own right, as he is none other than multiple stakes winner John Jones (Smarty Jones).
Bred in Maryland by Nancy Lee Farms, John Jones debuted as a 3-year-old at Pimlico for his breeder and trainer Ferris Allen. He continued on for those connections throughout his first 14 starts, picking up three wins along the way, until he was claimed for $25,000 by trainer Lacey Gaudet and owner Matt Schera at Laurel Park in July of 2016.
And it was there he'd stay for the rest of his racing career, quickly evolving from the stable's newest addition to a staple of the Gaudet barn, known well enough in Maryland as he was across the rest of the Mid-Atlantic circuit.
“His first race in the barn, when he won the  Mister Diz S. [going three-quarters on the turf] and beat Ben's Cat, I remember Stan Stalter interviewing me and saying, 'What do you think you're going to do next?' And I said, 'A mile on the dirt,'” said Gaudet. “He never really ran back to that race on the turf, but he was an amazing dirt horse for us, we had so much fun with him.”
Though the dark bay gelding wasn't the easiest of horses to deal with in the barn, he made up for it with his dedication and consistency on the track, in the mornings and during the afternoon, and most notably with his unique personality.
Gaudet recalls a morning that a tour group, with children whose ages ranged from 10 to 18, walked through the barn. John Jones, in one of the first few stalls by the office, watched with rapt attention.
“Most of our stable is kind and they're used to peppermints and treats, but the way John Jones just brought himself to the front and made himself such a presence to these kids, they just gravitated to him. He engaged so much with these children and everybody seemed to have to touch him and he just had to put his nose on everybody. It was just kind of a 'stand back and watch moment,'” said Gaudet. “He was always a tough horse, he was kind of aggravating and always wiggling, stuff like that, but when it came time for his attitude and personality to shine, people of all backgrounds just really gravitated to this horse. He knew he was something special and could give them something special too.”
In his 33 starts across five seasons for Team Gaudet, he picked up two more stakes victories–taking the Jennings S. two years in a row–and hit the board in five others, including a trip down to Gulfstream Park where he finished third in the 2016 Claiming Crown Jewel S.
“I think it was in the week or two before Laurel Park shut down [due to COVID-19 in early 2020], he won a three-other-than and beat one of our other horses. He was set for such a big comeback, we thought he was going to have such a stellar year. When COVID-19 hit, we gave some of the horses time off and he came back and trained fine, but he never really raced quite as well. I don't know if he just thought it must have been his time to retire because he'd gotten time off, but it was kind of a confusing moment for him, as for all of us,” said Gaudet. “His owner Matt Schera was so great about it. He was like, 'Look, we're at a crossroads. It's either run him for $25,000 and watch him get claimed and probably go through the claiming ranks or we can retire him and find him a new job.'
“I jumped at the opportunity. I can't thank Matt enough for allowing us to be able to retire him and give him a happy home.”
John Jones made his final start Nov. 20, 2020 at Laurel Park, retiring with a record of 12-4-6 from 47 career starts with a total of $600,364 in earnings. Though Gaudet had hoped to find him a home where he could be a show horse or point towards the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover, those plans never panned out, so instead John Jones spent some time with Gaudet's string at Delaware Park before coming home to her family's farm in Upper Marlboro, Md.
The gelding spent nearly two years enjoying a life of leisure on the farm, sharing a field with fellow Smarty Jones gelding Concealed Identity, Gaudet's late father Eddie's first GI Preakness S. starter (2011). But earlier this year, Gaudet noticed a change in John Jones demeanor, as if he was trying to make it clear he had had enough of 'just hanging out.'
It was around that time, in mid-February, when Gaudet got the news that Blimey (Limehouse), her veteran trainee turned seasoned pony that she had sent to join Casse's team as the stable pony just a couple of years prior, had passed away in his stall at Fair Grounds. He was 16 years old.
“[Blimey] ran until he was 9 and he was just a fun racehorse to have. He was the first pony we sent to Norm and his assistant Will [Cano] loved Blimey. Norm was always very happy to have him in the barn and he did credit him with helping a lot of the fillies and the babies. I think it really gave Will, who rode him, the opportunity to watch more and be more hands-on in the development of Norm's younger horses,” said Gaudet. “I loved him. Will had that connection with him and he was absolutely crushed [when he died]. I just kept saying, 'We need to get Will another pony.'”
Gaudet pulled John Jones out of the field in March, rode him for a couple of weeks, and called her brother-in-law.
“He's very green but he's good. He's doing everything right and he just needs to be ridden, all morning long. I know Will wants a pony, so just let me send him out to you. If he doesn't work out, you can send him back,” she said.
Though everyone was excited for him to embark on this new chapter, it was still a bit emotional for the team who had spent all of those years with him at the track in Maryland, particularly Gaudet's groom, Abel Sanchez. Though Sanchez no longer works full-time in racing, he still comes to help Gaudet on the weekends, and he was there Sunday, Apr. 16, the day they loaded John Jones onto a van bound for Churchill Downs.
“I have so many videos of [Abel]'s son, who would just have to come in and see John Jones. The boy didn't know one thing about horses, didn't know one from another, but he knew John Jones and he would come in and just feed him peppermints. And John Jones would just stand there and eat a hundred if he could. He was so gentle with that little boy,” said Gaudet. “Abel walked him to the van and he started crying.”
John Jones has settled right into life as a pony in the Casse barn, serving an important role in the lead-up to the first Friday in May while also helping to ease the pain of losing Blimey as he follows in his hoofprints as Will's new partner.
“I really loved Blimey. He would follow me and he'd wait for me. He was my favorite. He'd know when I was coming and I'd give him peppermints. I'm trying to do the same with Mr. John,” said Cano. “The more time I work with him and he gets to know me more, he'll be a nice pony. The first few days he was a little fresh, but that's normal because it was his first time at Churchill Downs, but now he's doing great. I'm happy with him.
“We're excited with Southlawn and it's nice to have a pony to walk up with her and wait for her. I really appreciate Lacey Gaudet helping us out. It's nice to have a pony in the barn, especially this kind of horse.”
If the company Southlawn keeps in the Casse barn is any indication of her potential for success on Friday and the rest of her career, there is no doubt her future is bright.